This is easy to show, because while children do master the sound system of their first language(s), most adults fail to acquire native-like pronunciation in foreign languages. For most students of Chinese, simply hearing the language and speaking it isn’t enough, even if done for years.
Still, while age does make it harder to learn pronunciation, it certainly doesn’t make it impossible. You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old. Most people who fail to achieve clear pronunciation do so because they aren’t willing or able to invest enough time and energy. This is good news, because if you are willing and able to work for it, you certainly can master the sounds and tones of Mandarin.
In this article, we will look at the role of explicit learning and how knowing some theory can improve you pronunciation. This is not the most important ingredient in a successful strategy, though, so let’s quickly discuss where you should invest most of your time before we turn to the role of theory.
Three fundamentals of good pronunciation: listening, mimicking and feedback
The best way to learn to pronounce any language is to combine copious amounts of listening with mimicking and feedback so you can track progress and make sure you focus on the right things. Listening amore is straightforward, but if you want some effective ways to increase how much you listen, I have you covered.
Mimicking can be done in many ways, but what I find most useful is to try to repeat something a native speaker says as they are saying it, trying to make what you say match perfectly with what they say. You can do this with a real person or an audio recording. I’ve written more about how to do this using Audacity here: Mimicking native speakers as a way of learning Chinese.
While you can listen and mimic as much as you want on your own for free, getting helpful feedback is trickier. I’ve discussed how to do that here: How to get honest feedback to boost your Chinese speaking and writing. It’s surprisingly hard to do this, which is why I’ve added a feedback option to my pronunciation course, where I will give systematic feedback tailored to beginners or more advanced students: Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence
The course also covers all the theory you need, and since theory is what this article is meant to focus on, let’s turn to that now.
Why theory can be helpful when learning Mandarin sounds and tones
Beyond listening, mimicking and feedback, adult learners can also benefit from learning some basic theory. I first discovered the importance of theory when learning English at university. I’m Swedish, and when I grew up, we started learning English in school at the age of ten, but all with non-native speakers as teachers. Naturally, ten years of learning inside and outside school taught me a lot about English pronunciation, but it was only when I took a course in phonetics that I noticed some errors I had been making all along.
This website is called Hacking Chinese, not Hacking English, but I’ll include some of the pronunciation errors I spotted at university for the curious. To begin with, I noticed many cases where I pronounced things as they were written, even though native speakers don’t say the words like that. Some examples are “iron”, “salmon” and “column”. I had heard these words thousands of times, yet I had never noticed that they weren’t pronounced as they were written. The importance of vowel reduction was also eye-opening (or ear-opening, perhaps).
Theory is never enough, but it can help you pay attention to the right things
Studying theory isn’t always immediately useful. It’s not like you read something about how a certain sound or tone is pronounced in Mandarin, shout Eureka!”, and you never get it wrong again. This is not how language learning works.
More often, the insight helps you direct your attention so that when you hear native speakers, you notice something that’s different from how you say it. Gradually with practice, this transforms into better pronunciation. Without even noticing that there’s a difference between what you say and what they say, you won’t improve, because in your mind, you have already reached the goal.
Some examples of how theory has improved my pronunciation in Chinese
Here are some examples of things related to Chinese pronunciation that I have learnt by reading about them, rather than merely listening and mimicking (which I’ve done a ton of too, naturally). I had many opportunities to pick these things up just by listening, but I didn’t; I only figured them out by learning about them.
Depending on your Chinese level, your native language and many other factors, my examples might or might not make sense. They are merely a collection of things that have helped me to show how theory can lead to better pronunciation in general. If you have other examples, please leave a comment!
Here are my examples:
- That the third tone is usually a low tone – This is a problem many foreigners have, and I think the reason is that few teachers accurately explain how the third tone should be pronounced, or if they do, they fail to focus on that beyond the first few weeks. The third tone is just a low tone in front of all tones except another third tone. It has an optional rise when in isolation or at the end of sentences. If you’re aiming for the dipping tone in normal speech, you’re certainly going to get it wrong.
- That “j/q/x” aren’t produced with the tip of the tongue and thus aren’t between “z/c/s” and “zh/ch/sh” – These sounds are instead produced with the tongue tip down. I knew there was something wrong with my pronunciation of these sounds, but it took years until I studied Chinese phonetics and really figured it out. I’ve done several pseudo-scientific experiments with this and even though the sounds produced are similar, there is a distinct difference. I have corrected the pronunciation of enough fellow Mandarin students to know that I’m not alone in having misunderstood these sounds.
- That “z” and “zh” aren’t voiced; only “l”, “m”, “n” and “r” are. It’s common to hear people pronounce “z” and “zh” with voicing, and “s” and “sh” without voicing. This is in line with how “z” and “s” differ in English, where “z” is voiced and “s” is not. But this is not true in Mandarin. None of these sounds are voiced, and instead the difference is aspiration.
For more examples, check this article: A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls: Learning Mandarin pronunciation
Now, you might argue that I could have corrected all these problems simply by having a good teacher who could point them out and help me correct them. And you’d be right, except that such teachers are exceedingly rare. I have had well over twenty teachers and only the first error was pointed out to me and that was after having learnt Mandarin for more than two years.
This will be the topic of a separate article someday, but to put it briefly, most teachers lack the time, energy, courage or competence to help students with their pronunciation, so if you care at all about speaking clearly and naturally, you’re mostly on your own.
Resources for learning Mandarin pronunciation theory
If you want to learn more about Mandarin pronunciation, I have created a course that covers everything you need to know. I built this course because I realised that there were no such resources out there. Other courses are either way too theoretical (such as if you study academic courses in phonetics) or not theoretical at all, creating even more confusion by simplifying to the point where what’s taught is wrong.
The course covers how to learn pronunciation, the theory you need to master initials, finals, tones and prosody, along with lots of practical tips and tricks. It also goes through and explains how all sounds are written in IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet), which will enable you to see how Mandarin is supposed to be pronounced. As mentioned earlier, there’s also a feedback option. Here are som excerpts from the course, starting with the introduction:
Sneak peek: Section 1, Lesson 1: Welcome to the Course
Sneak peek: Section 4, Lesson 2: Finals starting with A
Sneak peek: Section 2, Lesson 4: Tone Pairs
I’ve put all the information about the course, including full curriculum, answers to practical questions and much more here here: Hacking Chinese Pronunciation: Speaking with Confidence
Free resources for learning more about the sounds and tones of Mandarin
I realise that not everybody will be interested in or want to pay for a course, so here are some free resources to help you out. I also include two book which isn’t free unless you can find it at your local library.
- Zein on Mandarin Chinese Phonetics
- Chinese Pronunciation on Sinosplice
- Standard Chinese Phonology on Wikipedia
- The Sounds of Chinese by Lin Yen-Hwei
Listening and mimicking is the foundation of good pronunciation and is enough for children and even for some extremely talented adults, but for most students, it’s far from enough. Add some theory to the mix to help you understand what you’re doing and direct your attention to the right things.
Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2015, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in May, 2023.
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